ESSAY- Flat Stanley: Up in space with our astronaut

Briton in his 2nd grade class and "Auntie Dottie" (center) with her Shuttle Discovery class.

Some time in first or second grade, most kids in the US are sent home with a stack of envelopes for their parents to stamp and address to the most far-flung friends or family. But it's not just a lesson in letter writing that their teachers have in mind for these envelopes. Instead, it's the time-honored tradition of Flat Stanley. 

In the mid 1960s, Jeff Brown wrote a book about a little boy who is flattened when a bulletin board falls on him in the night and follows his adventures as he learns to slip under doors– and flies on the end of a string as his brother's kite. 

Thirty years later, a Canadian schoolteacher launched the Flat Stanley Project, in which students sent Flat Stanleys to relatives and tracked how far he had traveled. In the decade and a half since, Stanleys have circumnavigated the world, been photographed with celebrities, and twice have flown into space. Make that three times.

This year was the Flat Stanley year for my son Briton's second grade class in Charlottesville. When the time came to send him off, we addressed envelopes for his grandparents in Dallas and Columbia and also for a good friend in Ireland. Stanley had some fabulous adventures with our friends and relatives and returned to his class with a thick packet of photos. One of our Flat Stanleys, however, had to wait a little while for his big trip.

On Monday morning, April 5, at quite literally the crack of dawn, Briton's Flat Stanley launched into space on STS-131 in the care of his godmother, Dorothy Metcalf Lindenburger, fondly known in our house as "Auntie Dottie."

And lucky us, we were there to watch. Arriving at Kennedy Space Center, two kids in tow, at 2am, we spent the morning checking in, wandering around and being bussed out to a safe view spot on the causeway a few miles from the launch pad. We heard Dottie signing on over the loudspeaker and gazed up at the sky as the International Space Station few overhead just minutes before the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery and then sat in awe as our old friend, and our flat friend, flew in a streak of light up to the heavens. 

Having Flat Stanley fly into space will always be the stuff of family legend and an honor we are proud to hold. But Stanley or no, we were really there to cheer on Dottie, to see her reach a goal that has been a long time in the making. And Briton, who once thought that his godmother and her husband lived on every shooting star that passed though the sky (because she's an astronaut mom) got to see his imaginings come true.

As the shuttle became first a flurry of light, then a tiny sparkling speck, my husband shot pictures, my daughter pointed to the sky, tears streamed down my cheeks, and Briton told us all, "Auntie Dottie is a star!"


Gillian Grimm is a Charlottesville freelance writer, canner, and mom.